Talkin’ With Lou: Steve Williams, Vice President, Product Engineering & Research and Development

Dec 2, 2009

Sometimes the best way to get to know a company is to talk to those retailers committed to selling the company’s products. When I started this article, I already knew that, for more than 30 years, K&N has been considered by many the de facto standard in engine filtration.

I knew these air filters offered improved airflow, which increases horsepower and overall mileage. I knew these filters were legal in every state, designed for specific year, make and models, and I knew K&N’s rich history in racing was led by a devoted research and development team. But something was missing.

So, I spent a Friday afternoon on the phone with several top retailers discussing what it is that sets K&N apart.

“That 10-year, million-mile warranty is a big deal to my customers” one local jobber told me, adding, “seriously, how many companies truly stand behind their product for anything more than 90 days?”

Another retailer in Texas noted, “These guys stand behind their product, and you can get them to help you out with anything.” I heard those types of comments over and over.

Now it’s time to hear from Steve Williams about what it’s like on the inside of this well-respected company.

L.J.: Steve, thanks for taking some time out to talk to us. Tell me, what’s a typical day like for you?

Steve: K&N is a flat organization and the four executives manage the company with people who are coworkers instead of direct reports. With this in mind, my day consists of many interactions with people from all areas of the company, which adds a lot of variety and I like that. My favorite day is the one where I do not have to talk to attorneys.

L.J.: Amen to that! So, what’s your outlook for K&N in 2009?

Steve: K&N works harder than any company I know to understand the challenges that both direct customers and consumers will face on an annual basis. K&N would like retailers to have 100-percent fill rates with timely delivery in order to not miss a sale. Consumers also need validation that a K&N air filter is the best air filter they can buy for their vehicle.

With all of this in place, our outlook for ’09 is strong because of our large inventory, which includes more than 5,000 part numbers. Because people are feeling the economic stress, we believe we are a better value today than when consumers had more expendable income. The outlook for reusable technology that replaces disposable products will continue to grow in the years to come.

L.J.: What types of programs does K&N have in place to support the retailer?

Steve: At K&N, we have creative people who have the experience to assist any retailer in selling K&N products. We do this through cooperative advertising programs, in-store merchandising including header cards, shelf wobblers, floor graphics, static-cling window signs, counter mats, banners and on-time catalog delivery.

One of the most significant tools K&N uses to assist the retailer is the dealer referral program, where 1.5 million consumers are directed to the closest K&N dealer in their area each year. We also offer a business-to-business Web site that allows direct customers to submit their orders online, set up email subscription notifications, manage their contacts, and check order status 24/7.

L.J.: Has K&N done anything with MAP pricing and, if not, are there any plans to MAP price your product line?

Steve: K&N has structured a pricing program in which the advertised price of our product remains consistent no matter what business channel it is being sold through. This has proven to be a successful program.

L.J.: I think a lot of people don’t realize K&N is major player in the marine market as well as the powersports market, including everything from motorcycles to snowmobiles. Can you tell me more about what you’re doing in those markets?

Steve: K&N employs people who are motorsports enthusiasts. They actively participate in racing events as professionals or for recreation. Our employees’ participation in a particular sport allows them to offer current insight into what products to offer and how to reach the consumers in that segment.

L.J.: One of my goals with these articles is to give the retailer something tangible they can implement today something uniquely different than what they’re already doing, with the goal to increase sales. If you were a retailer today, what would you be doing to grab a bigger piece of the pie in this challenging economic environment?

Steve: One of the biggest challenges for the retailer today is to employ an individual with the automotive background and experience necessary to help the customer with their needs. There just isn’t the same level of enthusiasts applying for these types of jobs like there was 20-30 years ago.

To combat this problem, we have gone back and implemented in-store dealer calls in which we send a qualified K&N representatives to work with the store manager and personnel. These representatives offer the proper training and tools necessary for the retailer’s employees to educate consumers and, in turn, sell more of our products

Each year, there are more than 10,000 in-store dealer visits by K&N representatives, and any retailer can schedule an in-store workshop through K&N customer service.

L.J.: Incidentally, a retailer I spoke with in California had this to say about the in-store programs: “They do these sales seminars right here in the store to be sure my team knows exactly how to sell their line.”

Great advice. Thanks, Steve, and good luck this year!

STEVE WILLIAMS, K&N Filters

What’s on your iPod?
I have about 8,600 songs on my iPod so that includes pretty much everything. The majority is ’80s music, but then the rest is a little bit of everything including popular music.

Last book read: 
“Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors,” by Bill Cosby

Favorite place to drive: 
Any race track, any time

Person you’d most like to have lunch with
Dale Earnhardt